Not easy being green: Eco-point system tests patience

May 1st, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

This checklist could save your life

This checklist could save your life

By now a lot of people have taken advantage of the government’s Eco-point system, which proffers yen-value points when you purchase goods that have been deemed energy-saving in some shape or form. These points can be redeemed for putatively eco-friendly goods and services. We’ve already noted that the system seems to be designed to stimulate the economy rather than save the environment, but since the economy really does need stimulating I probably shouldn’t be complaining.

But others certainly are complaining, not so much because the Eco-point system is hypocritical about energy-saving (it is, but more on that later), but rather because it’s such a royal pain in the neck. The Web is full of detailed grousing about the paperwork necessary for redeeming one’s points. Some people have found it so complicated that they’ve actually given up — and these are Japanese. Since any explanations in English on how to redeem points are cursory at best (the bureaucracies in charge of the system don’t provide English instructions themselves), many non-Japanese are effectively shut out of the deal.

Several weeks ago we bought a new television at a discount store. The purchase earned us 12,000 Eco-points. When you buy an item that qualifies, the saleperson gives you a spiel about what to do. If consumers aren’t prepared for the spiel — and I doubt that many are — much of it will go over their heads. The salesman gives you several forms, including an application that he himself will partially fill out and a checklist that will help you go through the steps for filling out the application. He will tell you that you must fill out the warranty card that comes with your purchase. Most people never bother doing that until they have a problem with their purchase and need to get it fixed. But to redeem your Eco-points you have to fill in all the information on your warranty card, make a photocopy of it, and attach the photocopy to your application.

You also need to attach the original receipt for the purchase (the ryoshusho, not a register receipt) to the application form. This was a problem for us because, since we use the television for work (I write about television), we need the original ryoshusho for our tax return. Fortunately, we mentioned this to the salesman, and he was able to give us a certificate of sale that he said we could use for our taxes. (Later, after we sent the ryoshusho in with the application, we checked the tax situation and found that we still had to retain a copy of the ryoshusho for our records; the certificate of sale is not enough.) Also, if the purchase is replacing an older appliance and you paid a recycling fee to the agency that received it, you should attach the kaden risaikuru-ken (home applicance recycling receipt) to your application because it will increase the number of points you can receive. Since we traded in our old TV for the new one, we received a discount on the new TV and so didn’t receive a recycling receipt.

Filling out the form is the easier part. It’s choosing the things for which to redeem  points that tends to drive people up the wall. You can redeem your points for as many items as you want depending on how many points you have, but each form only has room for four items, so if you want more items you have to get more forms. We received 12,000 points for the TV, and once we started looking for things we might want in exchange the search became so convoluted that we decided to trade them in for twelve ¥1,000 gift certificates that themselves can be redeemed at any department store in Japan. We did this not so much because we like shopping at department stores, but because we just got sick of looking at all the websites for thing we might want to buy.

There are half a dozen categories of redeemable goods at the Eco-points website. There is one for coupons and prepaid cards (Suica and Pasmo are no longer available for some reason). There is one for local goods that can only be purchased from local retailers; one for local goods that can be purchased from national retailers, like Rakuten or Dinos; prefectural foodstuffs; special low energy-use goods; and donations to organizations involved in environmental issues. Clicking on each of these categories will take you to different pages that you have to go through item by item in order to find the thing you want. When you find something that appeals to you, you copy down the jigyosha (business) code and the shohin (product) code. Because many of these pages are set up by the businesses that sell them, finding the product code can be a real chore. Many times we clicked on an item and were sent to a dead page. If you know what you want beforehand it certainly helps, but clicking through all these pages looking for an item becomes very time-consuming.

The real problem is that if you redeem your points for multiple items you may not be able to redeem all of them. If you have 12,000 points and you select four items that add up to, say, 12,400 points, you’ll have to lose one item. Getting the exact amount is more difficult than it sounds, even if you’re redeeming coupons. At first we wanted JCB coupons, since they are redeemable at more places, but they were offered only in pre-determined amounts. For 12,000 points the best we could get was a combination that added up to ¥11,400, which means we would have lost ¥600. So we went with the department store coupons.

After you’ve finally selected your items and filled out the forms (it took us almost two hours), you send it to an organization called Green Kaden, which checks it and then sends the proper information to the businesses indicated in your application. Those businesses then pass on the information to the individual retailers or service providers who then process your order and send you your items or coupons or receipts or whatever.

You don’t have to be Ralph Nader to see that this process is pretty unecological. Rather than redeem your Eco-points at the point-of-purchase for eco-related goods, which would make the most sense, you have to go through an involved distribution process that, in the end, may entail the delivery of multiple items, each with its own delivery route and disposable container. How does that save energy? The time spent on the Internet choosing items uses lots of energy, too. Of course, many older people do not have Internet access, so for them the retailer who gives them Eco-points also gives them a manual on how to redeem their points, and those manuals cost money and energy to print.

Probably the most trivially wasteful component of the Eco-point system is that you have to send your application (you can actually send it over the Internet, too, but since they require hard copies of your ryoshusho and warranty photocopy, you still have to use the post for those) to Green Kaden in a kaku-ni envelope. Kaku-ni are non-standard size envelopes mainly used by businesses. Most people don’t have them in their homes, so they’ll have to go out and buy a whole package of them. Moreover, kaku-ni envelopes cost ¥120 to mail rather than the usual ¥80 or ¥90 for standard envelopes. We didn’t notice that requirement before we dropped our application in the mailbox. We then called Green Kaden who assured us that it wouldn’t be a problem, but some bloggers have written about all the extra trouble they’ve gone through just to mail the applications.

In the end, the Eco-point system not only has less to do with ecology than with the economy, it has less to do with the economy than with providing work for certain bureaucratic organs. And according to some of the grousers, the current system has actually been streamlined since it was first introduced last year, meaning it used to be even more complicated.

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